Summit marks 20 years of EU social dialogue 

In September 2005, representatives of trade union and employers' organisations and of the EU institutions met to celebrate 20 years of European-level social dialogue. The summit highlighted achievements to date and discussed the way forward.

A special summit was held in Brussels on 29 September 2005 to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of the EU-level social dialogue process at the Val Duchesse talks in 1985. The summit was attended by more than 150 participants from social partner organisations from the 25 EU Member States and Romania and Bulgaria, in addition to representatives from the EU institutions.

Achievements so far

Opening the summit, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, praised the achievements of the European social dialogue over the past 20 years. It was noted that over 40 joint texts have been concluded at cross-sector level since 1985. Specific agreements include the accords on parental leave (in 1995), on part-time work (in 1997 - EU9706131F) and on fixed-term contracts (in 1999 - EU9901147F), which have all been implemented by Council decision in the form of a Directive.

Recent years have seen the conclusion of 'new generation' texts, which are implemented and monitored by the social partners rather than by EU institutions. These include the framework of actions for the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications, concluded in March 2002 (EU0204210F) and the framework of actions on gender equality, concluded in March 2005 (EU0509203F).

The social partners have also concluded autonomous agreements, independent of consultation by the Commission. The first of these was an agreement on telework, concluded in July 2002 (EU0207204F), which was followed by an agreement on work-related stress, concluded in October 2004 (EU0410206F.).

Joint statement by social partners

At the event in September, representatives of the main EU-level cross-sector social partners - the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) - debated how they could jointly contribute to the modernisation of the EU social model. In a joint press release, they agreed that:

  • it is possible to have a well functioning market economy with low unemployment and protection against risks, and the experience of some Member States proves this. However, with almost 22 million people unemployed, insufficient growth and falling productivity rates, one cannot say that Europe as a whole is meeting its ambitions;
  • the 'European social model' is translated into different national social systems but they all seek to combine economic and social progress, competitiveness and social protection, productivity and solidarity; and
  • for the European growth and jobs strategy to contribute to restore trust and to gain momentum in Member States, policy at EU level must steer a clear course towards modernisation.

The partners also issued the following joint statement: 'During the past 20 years, the EU social dialogue contributed to the success of crucial European projects. Having strongly supported enlargement of the European Union and participated to the work of the Convention, we backed the Constitutional Treaty as a balanced compromise to improve governance in a European Union of 25 Member States. The European social partners intend to continue contributing constructively to the EU integration process. But the EU social dialogue counts on the EU Council and on the Commission to give a clear signal that they intend to steer Europe out of lethargy.'

Future of the social dialogue

The main area of debate at the summit was the future development of the European social model. The Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Commissioner, Vladimír Špidla, stressed that the role of the social partners has increased in importance in recent years, due to the economic and social challenges facing the EU. He stated: 'To preserve our deeply rooted social values, we must have a clear idea of what we want to change and what needs more work. We must keep the values and adapt the policies.' Key areas of focus will be how to deal with industrial restructuring and an ageing population

The EU social partners are currently preparing a new joint multiannual work programme, to replace the current three-year programme, which expires at the end of 2005 (EU0212206F). The new programme will cover 2006, 2007 and 2008 and is expected to be finalised by the end of 2005.

Mr Barroso outlined a number of areas in which the European social partners could focus their efforts when preparing this next multiannual work programme. These include anticipating and managing change, which is the subject of a Commission consultation document, launched in April 2005 (EU0504202F), restructuring, the development of new technology and the effect of demographic change on the labour market. He stated: 'The debates on the next multiannual work programme is an opportunity to send a message to the citizens of Europe that not only is the European Union listening to them, but also that trade union and employer representatives are active and working towards achieving a social dialogue that will solve a number of key questions.'

After a debate, Mr Barroso stated that all participants agreed that the European social dialogue has considerable potential and can help to work towards solutions to many of the challenges facing European today. Mr Špidla added: 'In a world characterised by globalisation and a changing working environment, social dialogue must become permanent, transparent, multiform and not constrained by borders. It is one of the keys to the success of our social reform programme. It is, more than ever, an essential tool for the future.'

Commentary

Much has been achieved by the European social dialogue process over the past 20 years, in terms of both cross-sector and sector-level dialogue. After the conclusion of texts at cross-sector level - and some at sector level - that have been given legal force by Council Directives, the social dialogue process now appears to be in a new phase, characterised by more autonomy and a broader range of agreement types. Recent agreements at cross-sector level, such as the accords on gender equality, teleworking and stress at work, will be implemented in accordance with national practices rather than by Council decision.

The social dialogue process is now facing the challenge of contributing to the renewal of the European social model and helping the EU to face up to the challenges of an ageing population and an ongoing process of industrial restructuring. The coming years will determine how successful the process will be in contributing to tackling these issues. In terms of more immediate developments, an informal summit of EU heads of state and governments will be held in London on 27-28 October 2005, at which the role of the social partners in the modernisation of the European social model will be discussed in more detail. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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